Look Ma, No Gallery!

dsc 54951 Look Ma, No Gallery!

Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld and Andy Valmorbida

AT AN OLD WAREHOUSE on Washington Street last February, the Los Angeles-based street artist RETNA stood in a dimly lit room with 20-foot ceilings surrounded by his black-and-white canvases filled with symbols that looked like hieroglyphics, illuminated sporadically by camera flashes. The show was called “Hallelujah.” It was Fashion Week, which meant collectors, curators and dealers were packed in alongside Chris Brown and Mary Kate Olsen. Skaters mingled too, boards in hand. They drank straight vodka on the rocks. The air smelled like fresh paint. The line outside stretched around the block, full of both eager collectors and hangers-on, ragged and weary from the winter chill.

“It’s sort of becoming Cirque du Soleil,” said Andy Valmorbida, who, with business partner Vladimir Restoin-Roitfeld, organized RETNA’s show. “When we come into town now, people will come.”

Mr. Valmorbida and Mr. Restoin-Roitfeld, who have been working together since 2009, are part of a new breed of art dealers. They don’t have a permanent gallery space, they work only with a small roster of artists and they put together exhibitions across the world, on their own time, but they are hardly outsiders. Mr. Restoin-Roitfeld’s mother is the former editor of French Vogue. Mr. Valmorbida and his brother PC, who runs the three-floor Prism gallery in Los Angeles, are heirs to an Australian food-importing fortune. Andy Valmorbida’s first show was at a party held in his apartment in 2006, shortly after he’d left a lucrative career in investment banking. The exhibition included 35 works by photographer Raphael Mazzucco, and nearly sold out by the end of the night. If the party atmosphere hasn’t changed—Mr. Valmorbida and Mr. Restoin-Roitfeld’s current shows resemble “raves,” as one curator put it—neither has their flair for the deal: by the end of the opening night of the RETNA show, they said 90 percent of the work, or “product” as they call it, had been sold.

“I was wondering why we couldn’t have a bigger production and make it a little more fun than it is usually,” said Mr. Restoin-Roitfeld. “No one can contradict what I’m going to say: we’ve put on the most beautiful productions anyone has done in many years.”

So-called pop-up galleries have been ubiquitous in Europe for decades, especially in Berlin, where they’ve formed an essential part of the gallery scene since the wall came down. And in a way there has been a tradition of pop ups in New York, too, starting with the street art-heavy Times Square Show and the vagabondish Real Estate in a 1916 factory showroom in the ’80s, and continuing through the “roving” efforts of Kenny Schachter, who now has a gallery in London but did a series of pop ups in New York in the ’90s. The current crop of pop-up shows began as a function of the most recent recession and the sudden pervasiveness of empty storefronts. But even as we slide out of a slow market (ever so slowly), rogue exhibitions remain popular. Artists want a new context for their work. Curatorially minded dealers want to experiment with ideas without having to worry about daunting overhead costs. Without these costs, the work can be priced lower, which is enticing to young collectors looking for an easier way into the art market than what the gallery district offers.

Some of these art-world nomads call themselves “agents,” others “independent curators,” though many insist on “dealers.” They work both with and outside the established gallery system, partly because they can. More and more, galleries are showing young artists without representing them. There is a sense that the old way of doing things is being subverted. Still, at the suggestion that he was working outside the art world, Mr. Valmorbida seemed to bristle.
“What’s the art world?” he said, his voice growing louder. “My brother has a great program, but I’m not the type of person who wants to do what everyone else does.” He paused and said evenly: “I’ve changed the way art has been sold around the world. With the level of exposure we’re getting now, I don’t know why I would fall back on a traditional gallery model.”

He’s not alone. Clayton Press, an art consultant who has been collecting for 30 years, runs a kind of artists’ agency in New York with his partner, Greg Linn, called Agency, PLC. They place young artists in group shows and salvage midcareer artists from languishing in obscurity. Mr. Press had the idea for many years of helping artists organize inventory, run websites and curate shows at various galleries, before he finally decided to pursue it in 2009 as an extension of his advisory service, Linn Press. He thought galleries might feel threatened. Like Mr. Valmorbida and Mr. Restoin-Roitfeld, he has a small roster, all the better to manage their careers.

“The art market is really crowded,” Mr. Press said. “It’s crowded with artists. It’s crowded with galleries. There has to be an alternative model for artists who are either not represented or under represented.”

He said he has no problem with traditional galleries, but he wondered how they were earning their 50 percent commission. Most of them in New York are small, with a staff of three to six people at most. For that reason, they can’t concentrate on many artists’ (often considerable) needs, according to Mr. Press. Without having a brick and mortar space, Mr. Press and Mr. Linn don’t have to deal with the typical costs of running a business and are able to focus their time on their artists.

“It takes a lot of the burden off the gallery,” he said, “to have someone who knows the career history, who knows the inventory, who knows where it’s been placed. Some artists are good at knowing the details and others need help.”

IT IS NOT JUST up-and-comers who work with this new kind of dealer. Vito Schnabel, the 24-year-old son of painter and filmmaker Julian, has developed strong working relationships with Ron Gorchov, Dustin Yellin and Terence Koh. At this year’s Venice Biennale, Mr. Schnabel took over Sestiere di Castello, a palazzo where Mr. Koh staged his performance Telling It Like It Is. Mr. Koh lay on a white board, the edge of which rested on a deep well. His head hung off the board so that he stared into an abyss. This went on for 10 hours. Elsewhere in the palazzo, Bruce High Quality Foundation, a group of anonymous insurgents whom Mr. Schnabel has helped turn into the most unlikely of art stars, had installed giant inflatable rats, the kind that appear at union protests in the city. What could have been an insubordinate gimmick was taken seriously as powerhouses like MoMA PS1 director Klaus Biesenbach and Serpentine gallery curator Hans Ulrich Obrist dutifully watched from the palazzo’s perimeter.

This kind of acceptance of dealers working outside the system may be happening because people are starting to see that the old traditions need changing. Again and again collectors and dealers on the fringes of the elite talk about how intimidating it is to stumble into a gallery cold and how stale going to and from the same spaces can become. Why is the front desk always so high above the ground? Why do all the buildings in Chelsea look the same? Mr. Valmorbida recalled going into a gallery—he wouldn’t say which one—dressed casually in tennis shoes. He began inquiring about a work he was interested in purchasing and was given the cold shoulder.

“Who are these people?” he asked himself. “If you want to ask questions, the sales crew doesn’t have a fucking clue. You go into a gallery in flannel and sneakers and they turn their head away from you.”

AMY SMITH-STEWART closed her eponymous, two-year-old Lower East Side gallery in 2009 to start a roving exhibition business, throwing shows everywhere from a Harlem building that wasn’t up to code to the Wooly, the basement lounge of the Woolworth building.

“There are a lot of restrictions when you run a traditional gallery,” Ms. Smith-Stewart said. “It’s very expensive, there’s overhead, there are shows that are maybe critically successful, but maybe don’t have as much market support or vice versa. Or you might have shows you want to do but don’t necessarily know how a collector base is going to respond. I want to do the shows that I want to do and I don’t want to have to worry about those things!”

Ms. Smith-Stewart was speaking in the gallery Invisible-Exports on Orchard Street, where her exhibition “Lost” opened last week. It’s a decidedly postapocalyptic show. Hanging on the wall was a melted skateboard; a scale model of a wood-covered bridge was burnt a charred black; on the floor in an adjacent room was the decapitated head of the Star Wars robot character C-3PO, warped beyond recognition.

“The demands on the artists and all the different people they’re interacting with are getting more and more complex,” Ms. Smith-Stewart said. “Roles are being redefined.”

So much so that traditional galleries are more willing to experiment with new talent. Birte Kleemann, a curator at Veneklasen Werner, a venture she refers to as New York gallery Michael Werner’s “younger sister” in Berlin, worked with Mr. Valmorbida and his brother PC on a show when she was a director at The Pace Gallery. She calls Berlin the “mother of the subculture pop-up spaces” but believes the trend is catching on in the States. It helps that traditional galleries are taking risks and want to work in less conventional forms. She said the exhibition she is installing right now at Veneklasen Werner is made up of three artists; the gallery does not represent any of them.

“Artists tend to move on from galleries much more than what we’ve known before,” Ms. Kleemann said. “It’s quite a new phenomenon. I think dealers are more interested in showing artists without representing them.”

Perhaps the clearest sign that the old gallery system is changing is that Mr. Valmorbida and Mr. Restoin-Roitfeld will host one of their shows, an exhibition of street artist Richard Hambleton’s work, at the downtown branch of the auction house Phillips de Pury in September. Michaela de Pury, a senior director at Phillips, said she gave the two “carte blanche” to put it together.

“The content of art is constantly crossing borders,” said Ms. De Pury, “So why not the way it’s sold? The art crowd is a different one from earlier on. It was more homogenous.”

She added matter-of-factly: “Times have moved on.”

mmiller@observer.com